Update: Several of the restaurant openings at the Wharf have been delayed.
For decades, Southwest Washington has looked like a beige and barren place. Other than its famous fish market, stalwart theater and happy hours at Cantina Marina, that part of the city has rarely buzzed with life. Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage and one of the great trailblazers in the neighborhood, calls it “the forgotten quadrant.”
That may be because it’s cut off from the rest of the city by the interstate’s swooping overpasses, Smith says, or because its last redevelopment left it a sea of “biscuit-colored buildings.”
But the area has an amenity that Shaw and 14th Street can’t offer: a waterfront.
Navy Yard and the Washington Harbour, in Georgetown, have been luring us to the water for a few years. Now the Wharf, a sprawling, 24-acre project, promises to stretch the city’s nightlife and restaurant boom all the way to the Washington Channel and turn the forgotten quadrant into an entertainment mecca. The Wharf will unfurl in both a prolonged way (in phases, with the first opening this fall and more rolling out next year) and with a bang: 6,000 concertgoers will descend on the massive new music venue, the Anthem, on Oct. 12 to see hometown hero Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters.
The Anthem — an anchor in this project and a draw in and of itself — is the dream from the 9:30 Club’s co-owner and features luxe seats, seven bars, a glowing marquee and a star-studded roster.
The Wharf has also attracted many of the city’s best-known chefs. The higher-end restaurants will be dominated by Mike Isabella (of Graffiato and Kapnos), Fabio Trabocchi (of Fiola), Nicholas Stefanelli (of Masseria), Cathal Armstrong (of Restaurant Eve) and Kwame Onwuachi (formerly of Shaw Bijou) — a sort of who’s who of Washington dining.
That’s the point. The focus on D.C. names and brands is part of a calculated effort “to be real and regional and authentic,” says Amer Hammour, executive chairman of Madison Marquette, one of the Wharf’s developers. To amp up the “real” factor, these chefs all planted entirely new restaurant concepts here, rather than clones of existing spots.
Once everything’s open, visitors will encounter an eclectic range of about 20 bars and restaurants, including such smaller, D.C.-born businesses as District Doughnut, Dolcezza, Hank’s Oyster Bar and Taylor Gourmet. Also on deck: an Irish pub from a former Guinness employee, a rum distillery from Todd Thrasher (of the Alexandria speakeasy PX) and a bar from Eric and Ian Hilton (of Marvin and the Brixton).
The Wharf has the potential to be unlike any other place in the District — a robust waterfront dining and entertainment scene with three music venues.
Smith couldn’t be more excited for her new neighbors — and to see some light shining on her part of town. For years, she says, “we were a city that turned its back to the river.”
Where to eat and drink
During the Wharf’s opening celebration on Oct. 12, a handful of restaurant and bars — Hank’s Oyster Bar, Dolcezza and Whiskey Charlie, a rooftop bar and lounge — will be ready for sampling. These five newcomers are the ones we’re most excited about.
What: Mike Isabella’s contemporary French brasserie.
Address: 100 District Sq. SW.
Opening: Oct. 23.
Requin, a modern French restaurant from celebrity chef Mike Isabella, sits smack-dab in District Square, in the heart of the Wharf, occupying what looks like a glass box with 45-foot-high ceilings. Although Fairfax already has its own location, which is transitioning into a more casual brasserie, the water-facing storefront at the Wharf has a completely different menu. Led by executive chef Michael Rafidi, who also oversees the menu at fellow Isabella outpost Arroz, the kitchen will serve contemporary bistro food like croissant-wrapped escargot topped with Chartreuse butter and bone marrow with Sichuan peppercorn jam and country toast.
“It’s going to be like eating in Saint-Tropez while being in D.C.,” Isabella says of the restaurant.
Well, the Washington Channel isn’t quite the French Riviera, but we do love eating with a water view.
What: Fabio Trabocchi, the chef behind Italian heavy hitters Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca, expresses his love for Spain with regional seafood dishes.
Address: 791 Wharf St. SW.
Opening: Oct. 12.
Just about every design detail that went into chef Fabio Trabocchi’s Spanish restaurant — including the hand-painted tiles and custom furniture — was imported from Spain. As the birthplace of his wife, Maria, the country has been a frequent travel destination for the past 20 years. Dishes hail predominantly from Mallorca, although the menu will change frequently and reflect various regions. Expect seafood paellas with socarrat (crispy rice), gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and cream-filled churros.
“It’s not a Spanish-inspired restaurant. It’s totally Spanish,” Trabocchi says. “We have a unique opportunity to build a completely Spanish restaurant that reflects the most classic dishes of Spain.”
What: Afro-Caribbean dishes that chef Kwame Onwuachi — formerly of “Top Chef” and Shaw Bijou — grew up eating in the Bronx and Nigeria.
Address: 801 Wharf St. SW.
Opening: Oct. 12.
From 27-year-old wunderkind Kwame Onwuachi comes Kith and Kin, a restaurant within the InterContinental Hotel serving elevated Creole and Afro-Caribbean comfort food. Drawing from his mother’s recipes, Onwuachi will put a gourmet spin on such dishes as peel-and-eat shrimp, which have been sauteed in butter and mixed with white wine, orange juice and shrimp stock. There’s also Nigerian fried rice topped with confit spring onions and your choice of scorched mackerel, confit chicken or beef.
The space, filled with communal tables, features a custom mural with quotes from colleagues who have influenced the young chef. Given the fanfare surrounding Shaw Bijou’s opening (and quick closing), Kith and Kin’s already generating lots of interest.
What: A smaller version of Cantina Marina, the 15-year-old waterfront restaurant that’s closing for a few years and reopening in the Wharf’s Phase Two of construction.
Address: Transit Pier.
Opening: Oct. 12.
First, the bad news: Cantina Marina, the beloved waterside bar that arrived in Southwest 15 years ago, won’t make it through the Wharf’s expansive gutting of the waterfront. The pier the bar rests on “is going away,” owner Bruce A. Gates says, and so the end of the season, tentatively Oct. 28, will also mark the end of an era for this version of the bar.
While a new one is in the works for the Wharf’s Phase Two, visitors can visit Cantina Marina lite: Cantina Bambina, a low-key waterside bar just above the Anthem’s box office and the water taxi transit pier, will be a perfect stop to grab a local beer or cocktail and look out over the water.
What: A large, English-style seaside pub serving elevated pub grub from the same team behind Marvin and the Brixton.
Address: 949 Wharf St. SW.
Opening: Oct. 12.
Brothers Eric and Ian Hilton bring their signature vintage touch to this indoor-outdoor bar with the help of antique lighting and furniture. “The major part of our budget went to creating a sense of authenticity,” Ian says. “We had to take a new building and give it character.”
The spot will serve refined pub grub from chef Brendan L’Etoile (of Chez Billy) including chicken schnitzel, mussel pots and beer-battered fluke. The long drink list includes more than a dozen draft beers and gin-heavy cocktails for about $10. Adjoined to Anthem, it sounds like a good spot for a quick pre- or post-show drink and bite.
Where to hear music
Address: 901 Wharf St. SW.
Opening: Oct. 12 with the Foo Fighters. The show is sold out.
We’ve come to expect gritty subtlety from the 9:30 Club, from its once-lonely corner in Shaw to its black-box interiors. It’s cozy, shuns all things fancy, easy to get to and, once you’ve been a few times, blissfully predictable.
The club’s sister venue, a 6,000-capacity concert hall called the Anthem, opens next week as the big daddy of music options at the Wharf. So, how should you adjust your expectations?
Expect more. Bigger. And louder.
There’s the glowing marquee that shouts the Anthem’s arrival on the waterfront. There’s the opening night concert, a spectacle of a rock show featuring the Foo Fighters. A freestanding box office with eight ticket windows. Seven bars. Three levels. Premium seats. A lobby. A sprawling stage that can accommodate arena-style theatrics and be adjusted for smaller shows.
At its most intimate, the new 57,000-square-foot venue will fit double the number of people that can squeeze into the 9:30’s legendary V Street club; its biggest shows will easily draw 2,000 more people than a concert at DAR Constitution Hall can. Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the 9:30 Club and chairman of concert-booking group I.M.P., says visitors should expect “drama when they enter the venue. It’s going to be like, ‘We’re here for a show.’ ”
Despite the venue’s more than $60 million price tag (including a multimillion-dollar soundproofing project) and its tony waterfront address — beneath 500 apartments that rent for a minimum of $2,000 a month — the Anthem won’t be precious. Its touches largely feel industrial and edgy, from the exposed concrete columns flanking the entrance to the cagelike staircases inside.
In other words, the Anthem is super rock-and-roll.
Some things will be familiar to 9:30 Club concertgoers: advance-purchase parking; a coffee bar (so clutch!); sandwiches and bar food; and drinks at the bar at roughly the same prices (beers, for example, will start at about $8).
Other features will be totally new, including cantilevered balconies — think box seats at an arena — that swoop in the direction of the stage. Each has two rows of seats, dubbed “Super Excellent Seats,” but also a couple of rows of general-admission standing space just behind them.
The sound system was built to enhance the sounds of metal bands and EDM acts as well as the more pristine, low-key sounds of singer-songwriters. The speakers even move to surround smaller crowds for more intimate shows. (Speaking of shows, expect them to start earlier than at the 9:30 Club. Thank the neighbors in all those apartments overhead.)
The larger venues in Washington, including Constitution Hall and the arenas, largely “were not built for music,” Hurwitz says. “We’re so used to seeing music in venues not built for music. We think that’s the norm.” Of the Anthem, he says, “We’ve built ours for music.”
All kinds of music, too: In the coming months, performers include Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, Erykah Badu, Bon Iver, Lorde and Little Big Town.
Address: 33 Pearl St. SW. 202-380-9620.
Opening: Oct. 12.
One of the Wharf’s more interesting aims is to emerge as an entertainment corridor. It already has its own club-filled music row, dubbed Pearl Street, where you’ll find Pearl Street Warehouse, a 300-capacity music venue and restaurant by day from the owner of Cantina Marina and the forthcoming bar Cantina Bambina. If the Anthem is all about big shows, this venue’s trademark will be intimacy, says owner Bruce A. Gates, who has chosen to focus on roots, Americana, bluegrass and blues acts. Booker T. Jones (Oct. 12) kicks off the performances in the rustic 4,000-square-foot space, where tickets will average $25. The diner-influenced restaurant will serve such classics as Cobb salads, burgers and chowders. “We wanted to create the impression that we’ve taken over an abandoned warehouse,” Gates says. Rootiness — reclaimed tin makes an appearance in the decor — is just part of the vibe.
Address: 740 Water St. SW.
From its street-level windows just off Pearl Street, Union Stage will look like your average neighborhood bar with a passion for craft beer and an aesthetic stripped from the rock-and-roll ’70s. Think Rolling Stones and “Easy Rider,” says Daniel Brindley, who with his brother, Luke, owns the venue, as well as Jammin’ Java in Vienna. Downstairs, out of sight, is where the music magic will happen. The rock-club-style venue has room for 450 and promises touring rock, hip-hop, electronic and reggae acts. The large downstairs stage will accommodate big bands and big productions, the sound has been tweaked for precision and the lighting is extraordinary — all signs that the brothers, veterans of the Virginia music scene, are taking their musical game up a notch for all-ages shows for the D.C. crowd. “It’s twice the size as Jammin’ Java,” Brindley says. “We’re going to capture a new set of bands.”
How to get there
The Wharf, 690 Water St. SW. 202-688-3590.
Driving: The Wharf is located off Interstate 395/Interstate 695 and Seventh Street SW. There’s an underground parking garage ($2-$25) with three entrances: at Blair Alley, one block south of the Maine Avenue Fish Market; at Sutton Square; and at District Square.
Metro stations: The Waterfront Metro station on the Green Line is a 0.4-mile walk, and the L’Enfant Plaza station, on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Green and Yellow lines, is a 0.5-mile walk.
Free shuttle from Southwest: All day long (starting at the crack of dawn on weekdays and up to midnight on the weekends), every 10 minutes, a free shuttle (look for the one covered in waves) will make stops at the Wharf, the L’Enfant Plaza Metro/VRE station (at Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue SW), the Mall (Seventh Street at Independence Avenue SW) and L’Enfant Plaza (at 10th Street SW). Hot-pink signs mark the spot.
Capitol Bikeshare: There are three stations: at Maine Avenue SW and Seventh Street; Maine Avenue SW and Ninth Street; and Gangplank Marina.
Water taxi: The water taxi connects the Wharf to the Alexandria City Marina; Washington Harbour, in Georgetown; and National Harbor, in Maryland. (Schedule varies on opening day.) $10 one way, $18 round trip, $175 season pass.
Wharf jitney: The jitney — a free water taxi — departs from Recreation Pier and arrives at East Potomac Park, where you’ll find a public golf course, driving range, mini-golf, tennis courts and a public swimming pool.
Docking: From the Potomac River, travel north on the Washington Channel to the Wharf’s marinas and piers. Check with the marinas for availability and docking fees.
Correction: A previous version of this article said the Brighton would be opening Oct. 7, and Requin would be opening Oct. 12. The Brighton is now scheduled to open Oct. 12, and Requin is now planning to open Oct. 23. Additionally, the Anthem does not have plans to serve cupcakes, and the Wharf project is 24 acres, not 25. This version has been updated.